NDSU Magazine logo - Spring 2008

previous story next story


Vol. 08, No. 2


PDF Version
(Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

Email Us

Past Issues

Social media


Even the alphabet was a threat at first

Anyone with a child over 12 has probably heard of Wikipedia and Facebook by now. These two Web sites are only two of hundreds of online places where people gather, communicate and swap personal stories, photos and information. The social interaction that characterizes these Web sites, and the hundreds of similar Web sites and software applications, has created a new category, "social media" or "Web 2.0." Web sites used to be one-way media, more like billboards, brochures and television stations. Now Web surfers expect highly interactive experiences.

Wikipedia, the user-generated encyclopedia, logged its 6 millionth member in 2008 and now contains more than 2 million articles. Facebook advertises the fact that it has more than 67 million active users, with 250,000 people signing up each day. Even more startling than the numbers of people jumping online to contribute to these social media hubs are the types of people who are participating. It is no longer just the wide-eyed teenager in the basement looking for something new and exciting to do on a weeknight. The fastest growing demographic on Facebook is the over-25 crowd. The bulk of contributors to Wikipedia now comes from employess of corporations and organization members.

Still, the perception persists of social media as the danger zone for adolescents. The media continue to hype the perceived dangers. Recent stories about students uploading party photos on Facebook and MySpace reinforce a fear of new communication technologies. In a rush to avert the "danger" of these technologies, parents are told to monitor their children's activities in these free-for-all dens of iniquity. Schools are advised to block access, and children are told not to speak (or write) to strangers lest they be imperiled.

As someone who hears and studies the stories about similar communication technology advances, I hear an eerie echo in these warnings. My studies have taught me that, of course, we have heard the alarms before. Similar charges have been leveled at nearly every communication technology change over the past 3,000 years. Plato warned his fellow Greeks about the dangers of the bewitching cadence of poetry in The Republic. Ironically, Plato also feared that writing would weaken the memory and morals. The warnings about debilitating memory weakening, impending social promiscuity, and the stranger who lurks in the shadows usher in nearly all communication changes. Novels were once thought to promote licentiousness, telephones brought strangers into your home. Even the jukebox was thought a tool to break up the family by chaining men to their barstools. How soon the dangers in the past look virtuous in our nostalgic rearview mirrors.

While the public may believe that online and telephone surveillance is new, I'm afraid the rabbit hole goes much, much deeper. Before Facebook ever hit the scene, Web sites were dropping telltale markers - called "cookies" onto hard drives to collect data about their visitors. The emergence of wiretapping and other cyber-snooping efforts grew out of nineteenth and early-twentieth century cryptography. While proprietary purveyors of social-media like Facebook, MySpace, and Flickr may seem to wear the black hats in an otherwise free online "Wild West," the practice of media surveillance has a long history.

Tales of life complications brought about by identity theft and online predators serve to drive people further away from things like wikis, blogs, and, yes proprietary content management systems like Facebook. But knowing just how historically common these communication technology panics are does little to tell people how to negotiate through the thicket. Commonsense approaches to protecting yourself and your identity may not apply. Sure, one can avoid documentation of personal activities that may be illegal, unethical, or simply in poor taste. One should not trust the intimate details of your life with strangers. People can even try to stay away from new communication technologies as long as possible. In short: one may attempt to stay out of the water.

And while the royal "we" with the wisdom about these new communication technologies wag our fingers and call for caution, the parade marches right past us. The crowds seem rather indifferent to the indignities, and more firmly focused upon the benefits of using their computers, cameras, and cell phones to connect with others and grow. The students in my classes seem mesmerized by the ability to modify a malleable online identity, adding friends, pictures, and bits of information to their pages at will. Many of my students busy themselves joining groups, causes, and even founding new causes. What this means in the classroom, is that while I might still give an old fashioned-lecture, students no longer just take notes. They are using technology to collect feedback and push their knowledge boundaries. They might look up an author they just read and ask her a question, write a publicly viewable reflection on a great class discussion or co-write a document with a class studying the same subject halfway across the country.

My students' rush to connect has forced me to question most of my scholarly assumptions. Pat lectures about getting to the library to see what is on the shelf, discussions of copyright to avoid plagiarism seem antiquated and even quaint. Instead of enjoining students to look background research and definitions up after class, I have started to ask them to look it up online in class. I wait as they tell the classroom what they found. And unlike many of the critics of sites like Wikipedia, I demand that they correct the problems they see. My students have started to measure their perceptions and the information that shapes them. More importantly, my students know I expect them to play a role in correcting discord. The crowdsourcers are now going to college.

Although I share the concerns about privacy and surveillance (my dissertation was titled "The Rhetoric of Evasion and the Silence of Surveillance" after all), I think some of the problems surrounding social media underline the NEED to have informed people constructing viable alternatives. We dare not turn our educational missions over to the pedagogical equivalent of Starbucks unless we want a culture devoid of analysis and judgment. As educators, we should acknowledge our expertise in information analysis and begin to integrate our strengths in information quality control with the prolific engine of social media. The solution for nefarious surveillance is not more surveillance with a profit motive. Instead, we must begin to teach people how to create a public ethos within the networks they already occupy. After all, it is no coincidence that the word ethos means both "accustomed place" as well as "character." Universities, and especially teachers, can help guide how students create the narrative of identity in these very public spaces.

Part of our work as educators now includes fighting through the turbulence of apathy to create educational commons different than the "social media mall" so that we can bridge our students' competencies to the civic and professional practices universities are so good at cultivating. We can no more turn our backs on this any more than we can turn our backs on the alphabet, the pen, the book, the music scale, or the poem. At one time, all of these innovations threatened an ancient way of relating to the world. Even things like literacy and the timeworn essay were considered to be decadent and dangerous at their inception. Only when the scholars, the philosophers, and the thinkers create new, deeper pathways into new communication technologies does a communication potential truly open.

Like the Aristotle's peripatetics, who mixed philosophy, exercise, and even military exercises in the Lyceum, students today mix their activities with a similar restless energy. It is our job as educators to help them organize that activity into an ethical and effective pattern of interaction.

-- Andrew Mara

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.